It's been more than twenty years since I graduated from college but some things, I'm told, haven't much changed, particularly when it comes to issues of humanity and how we treat one another in the day to day -- you know, the basics we all should have mastered in kindergarten. You've probably been hearing a lot about this given the recent episodes of bullying in the news. Maybe you're weary of it all, maybe you think these are isolated cruelties having nothing to do with you, maybe you feel insulated from it because you're doing a decent enough job within your own circle of friends, or maybe you have a mid-term tomorrow and simply can't be bothered. Stay with me for a moment: there are compelling reasons to resist complacency and pay greater attention to what's going on out there, particularly in terms of what's happening within the gender.
Three years ago, I wrote a piece for the New York Times called, "My Sorority Pledge? I Swore Off Sisterhood." The article detailed a pretty awful moment from my college days: after stupidly drinking too much one night, I was raped at a fraternity house, blamed and ridiculed by my "sisters," and summarily ejected from my home -- cast out by the very friends I'd hoped would support and comfort me. It was horrible, no doubt, but I didn't wallow in bitterness, blame or victimhood. I clawed my way out of the abyss and went on to construct a fulfilling life as an attorney, writer and mother of four. Still, the personal fallout was considerable: the episode dealt palpable, lasting blows to my self-image and confidence and, for years, I couldn't muster the courage or trust to open back up to the prospect of female camaraderie. In short, I opted out of the sisterhood. For far too long, I held women at arm's length, avoided them and convinced myself it didn't really matter.
In the Times piece, I also wrote about my relief over eventually making some wonderful friendships and, believe me: there really is nothing like a reliable, trustworthy girlfriend in life. Indeed, compelling research confirms the mental, emotional and even physical health benefits our positive female connections can bestow. Still, as a mother of three girls, the support-sabotage paradox of female friendships always bothered me. I've seen so much gratuitous negativity, competition and other manipulative behavior out there. I ended my article by asking how we might encourage girls and women to behave more authentically, respect individuals over fleeting alliances, and curb those pointless, nasty tendencies that can inflict lifelong distress in others. I wanted us to just get along.
Response to "My Sorority Pledge" floored me. I'd always figured I was the only woman on the planet nursing these anxieties but suddenly there were hundreds of others reaching out and sharing similar concerns about our so-called sisterhood. Realizing I'd stumbled into something major, I launched an online survey and have now heard from more than 3,000 women about their female relationships. I've heard beautiful tales of friendship, but also story after story of quiet and not-so-quiet cruelty -- everything from women bad-mouthing their own friends and throwing female colleagues under the bus, to mothers harassing their daughters' peers, to the usual gossip, critiques, and put-downs so many of us wield out of habit, sport, boredom, or bonding ritual. While 90 percent of the women from my survey report having at least one girlfriend to turn to, 88 percent of them nonetheless believe an undercurrent of mean or negativity plagues the gender. A full 84 percent say they've been dealt substantial emotional wounding at the hands of other females and, although they might not be stuck in the past or visibly struggling, most say those prior run-ins still impact their views, approach and comfort level with women. A staggering 97 percent of them told me it's imperative that we find ways to improve the female culture in this country -- astounding when you consider these are the same women who sing the praises of Girl Power, feminism and female friendship. Are we, I wondered, just stuck in complacency?
Given the recent bullying-related deaths, it's a sad irony that the final straw prompting me to write a book about these issues was the suicide of a friend's niece in the midst of some garden-variety, mean-girl Facebook harassment and related pressures. Really, we shouldn't be waiting until tragedies like this hit the news or our immediate neighborhood. As I've learned through the voices of other women and my own experience, our seemingly innocuous acts of inhumanity -- those little nudges, slights, and outright cruelties -- aren't static events that happen in a vacuum. They're leaving hidden, lasting marks on girls and women all around us.
My book, The Twisted Sisterhood: Unraveling the Dark Legacy of Female Friendships covers a lot of ground but perhaps its greatest contribution would be to raise awareness about the genuine power, influence and impact we females have over one another, and to encourage folks to use that power responsibly. There's nothing cool or clever about beating our fellow women back -- I think we all have enough burdens, barriers, and obstacles in our day already. I say: let's practice a more proactive, mindful civility in our daily interactions. Let's keep it real. Let's support, nurture, mentor and cheer one another on. We don't have to love every female who crosses our path simply because we share a pair of chromosomes. But we don't have to go out of our way to diss, judge, ridicule or otherwise insult her dignity either. This isn't hokey idealism. It's Humanity 101. Each of us has a choice in how we treat one another -- every day, every breath, in every single encounter we have with another. Let's stop the pointless, gratuitous, self-defeating nonsense. It's a mistake to think that only men or the media can demotivate, demoralize and otherwise hold us back. Though we are loathe to admit it, sometimes we women are doing a masterful job of it ourselves.
Kelly Valen is an attorney and author of The Twisted Sisterhood: Unraveling the Dark Legacy of Female Friendship (Ballantine, Oct. 26, 2010). Her writings have appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, and other publications.